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Lessons from the failed ‘Yes’ referendum campaign

By Scott Prasser - posted Monday, 16 October 2023

After months of campaigning the failed Voice referendum will soon be behind us along with all its exhortations, claims and counter-claims, advertisements, all-round hectoring, divisiveness and general finger pointing.

Now, before we forget, we should consider what this referendum tells us about our political leaders, our democracy, and even about ourselves.

Politically, the referendum's failure shatters any notion of the Albanese government's invincibility.


It will be a defeat of mammoth proportions and a monumental political blunder on Albanese's part. His strategy of rejecting logical debate, providing as little detail as possible and relying on empty emotional appeals proved to be too clever by half.

The referendum was driven by short term political expediency on Labor's part. It set out to deliberately create division and rancour, to wedge the Coalition and embarrass Dutton, outdo the Greens, and satisfy the ideological demands of Labor's left faction.

The referendum process was poorly executed from start to finish, lacking a clear and honest rationale, any semblance of bipartisanship, and any commitment to democratic processes that have characterised earlier referendums.

The Albanese government did not want to follow long accepted practices of informing citizens of the arguments for and against a proposal. This only happened because of some backroom wheeling and dealing in parliament.

That funding was so lopsidedly for the 'Yes' campaign was the antithesis of what should happen in a democracy, where the dollar should not speak louder than the voter and where both sides have a right to be heard.

The referendum showed the Albanese government is woefully out of touch, pursuing 'recreational politics' while the country yearns for leadership to tackle its growing economic, energy and social problems.


The referendum highlighted other problems too.

Besmirching themselves in the worse form of partisan politicisation were some of our key public and private institutions – universities, some religious bodies, big business – who with little regard to the propriety of their actions, the integrity of their prescribed functions, or the views of their shareholders, members, employees and customers – crossed the line into outright political campaigning for the 'Yes' side.

Is this what we can come to expect at the next election – institutions taking sides, endorsing candidates and parties like so many interest groups as they line up at the trough of government largesse?

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This article was first published on Policy Insights.

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About the Author

Dr Scott Prasser has worked on senior policy and research roles in federal and state governments. His recent publications include:Royal Commissions and Public Inquiries in Australia (2021); The Whitlam Era with David Clune (2022) and the edited New directions in royal commission and public inquiries: Do we need them?. His forthcoming publication is The Art of Opposition reviewing oppositions across Australia and internationally. .

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